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Our American-Jewish Stake in Israeli Democracy

This blog post was written by APN intern Brian Reeves.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's support for two upcoming bills aimed at preventing progressive Israeli non-governmental organizations from receiving anything more than token funding represents only the most recent in a string of anti-democratic measures that the current governing coalition has instigated against Israel's democratic character.

The first of these bills came last November, when the Knesset passed a Likud draft that requires a two-thirds majority vote for giving up any territory in the Golan Heights or East Jerusalem, thereby removing from the Prime Minister's power the right to make the bold decisions it takes to arrive at a peace deal. 

Next was a proposal drafted by Yisrael Beinteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman in early January, which called for the Knesset to investigate Israeli human rights organizations for treason.  After that came a Likud-sponsored Knesset committee debate in March on whether the American J Street movement was sufficiently "pro-Israel"--an attempt to chill public debate abroad that was widely condemned, including by decidedly non-left-wing groups like the Anti-Defamation League.  A cabinet vote in June stripped former Labor Party leader Defense Minister Ehud Barak of his veto power over new settlement construction and transfered that power to the Prime Minister's office.  Soon after, Likud members proposed a bill that would give the Knesset the right to veto the appointment of any candidate to the High Court, particularly if the candidate was deemed not adequately Zionist.  

Finally, in July the Knesset passed the Boycott Law, which enabled Israelis to sue individuals and organizations that advocate a boycott against Israel or settlement products--without any need of tangible evidence of damages.   

Now right-wing MKs are pushing two new bills simultaneously, in hopes of having a better chance at passing at least one.  MK Ofir Akunis (Likud) has proposed a bill that would "bar Israeli organizations from accepting donations from governments and international bodies such as the United Nations and the European Union." MK Fania Kirshenbaum (Yisrael Beiteinu) has written a similar bill that would require these same targeted organizations to pay a 45% income tax on all funds procured from foreign governments.    

It is deplorable to try to silence any group for expressing divergent political views.  It is also anti-democratic. Dissent in the public arena is a fundamental pillar of Israeli society - a society that has long supported a vibrant democracy.  These latest measures, however, are threatening to erode that pillar by incapacitating the very organizations that strive to protect and bolster that democracy.

Hypocrisy in these bills runs deep.  Their content includes libelous accusations of foreign influence directed at left-wing groups, while individuals who contribute far greater sums of wealth to right-wing causes are left untouched.  American billionaire Sheldon Adelson's personally-funded pro-Netanyahu free daily newspaper, Yisrael HaYom, is now Israel's most widely-circulated newspaper, and American businessman Irving Moscowitz funds settler efforts to undermine the two-state solution through settlement activity in the heart of East Jerusalem.  Examples of untargeted right-wing influences like these highlight how the intent of these bills is far from impartial.      

The anti-democratic trend of the leading parties of the coalition, along with the support of smaller right-wing parties, has become evident.  While Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu may oppose each other's measures occasionally, only their collusion could have precipitated something as heinous as the Boycott Law.  And just as that law was only able to pass after a series of other anti-democratic efforts that failed, one may rest assured that if this heinous agenda goes unchallenged, this renewed attempt to collapse Israeli progressive civil society organizations could very easily pass into law.  

Combating these anti-democratic developments is an obligation of all people who love and support Israel, regardless of their political beliefs.  What is at stake in Israel is no less than freedom of speech--a basic right being challenged not only in the Knesset but also by Price Tag violence, including the recent incidents of death threats, bomb threats and desecration of property against the Peace Now movement.

When the Boycott Law was enacted, American Jewish organizations from across the political spectrum issued statements expressing their staunch disapproval.  It is critical that there be a similar outcry against these new attacks on democracy in Israel.  With our support, the national expression of the Jewish People that Israel embodies will come to reflect justice in its laws, just as it does in its spirit.